Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Well, I have returned. And of course I had a wonderful time, Greece being the place where my wandering heart lies. I don’t quite remember how many times I have been -- although it wouldn’t be a great task if I only took a minute to think about it. It’s mildly depressing how normality reasserts itself with such speed. We returned, naturally, to rain. Confessing that I love returning to rain -- the stark dissonance between the two climates delights me; the contrast strengthens the concept of "Greece" -- may make you think me odd, but there we go. And not only have I returned to rain, but to a nice new layout for The Crime Fiction Dossier, rumours that Henning Mankell is a plagiarist, and the cheering news that at least three people I know have died in the two weeks I’ve been away.

I shall now take a few minutes of my time to speak of my trip. Share them if you wish (after all, it’s only me being indulgent), otherwise skip to the end where I’ve put a couple of links (including more news about Ian McEwan’s next novel).
 
We had to leave at some ungodly hour of the morning (2 o’clock, I think), given that we live about four hours from Gatwick airport. We were driven there (“Airport Shuttle” – about the same cost of airport parking and saves a lot of hassle) by a man who looked remarkably like Joe Pesci, and arrived to the news that our flight was delayed by two hours. Which eventually morphed into four. I was fine, of course: Gatwick has a truly stupid number of bookshops. I browsed for ages, coming away with several pleasing tomes (Andrew Taylor’s The American Boy aka An Unpardonable Crime; He Who Fears the Wolf by Karrin Fossum; Last Car to Elysian Fields by James Lee Burke, and The Full Cupboard of Life). In the end I needed them, as I wildly underestimated the amount of reading I’d get done. I don’t think I’ve ever read quite so much in my life: 14 books (one per day), two short story collections, and Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country?
 
I began by starting DBC Pierre’s debut and Booker winner, Vernon God Little. Unfortunately, it is so BAD that I had discarded it for Paul Johnston's A Deeper Shade of Blue (a detective series set in Greece, what joy; I've been waiting years for it, and was almost on the point of starting one myself. I jest) even by the time the plane had left the ground. I’ve never come across such a lot of self-indulgent rubbish. It’s supposed to be a satire (it’s styled "A 21st Century Comedy in the Presence of Death") but as satires go it certainly isn’t piercing. Some Americans are fat and watch quite a bit of TV? Wow – astute. Texans like devouring BBQ Chicken and using the death penalty? Hilarious.  Calling a mu-mu a moo-moo? Witty, man. I found it incredibly annoying, a tiny bit exploitive. I cannot remember the last time I put a book down after only 65 pages (it might eve never have happened; once I get that far in I like to continue), and that I have now disappoints me a great deal. Every book is someone’s award winner, (hell, even James Patterson has won an Edgar), but how this beat Zoë Heller or Margaret Atwood will, in the fullness of time, become one of life’s great mysteries. You mark my words.
 
The flight there was by no means the highlight of my lifetime’s aviationary experience. The delay was due to a person having opened the emergency door somewhere over Africa – they had to fly in another plane from Djibouti, or all places. The seats were uncomfortable; there was a rather ominous noise for about ten minutes after take-off that sounded like something loose was flapping against the side of the cabin; coffee stains ran down the undersides of the meal trays; the emergency lights along the aisle were fastened down with sellotape, and the whole craft generally gave the impression that it should have been scrapped about two years ago. The meal was described as “Hot Breakfast”, although I’m afraid that I’m going to have to take their word for that – certainly I’ve no idea if it was actually breakfast, or anything which normally constitutes that meal: it was just mush a la sausage. Nor was it particularly hot. Thank God for that tiny tasteless bread roll – at least there was no possible mystery there. And I normally LIKE airplane food. The rest of the vacation passed delightfully and with nary a hitch. Beautiful sun (with a wonderful breeze); excellent food; stunning scenery; general Greek-ness; sunsets which turned the sky the colour of torchlight through flesh. And, of course, a feast of reading.
 
Given that Santorini is a volcano, the beaches are black. Despite this remarkable feature, I very rarely went down to them (the sand gets incredibly hot and that sand insinuates itself incredibly everywhere; plus, I don’t go in the sea because I hate feeling covered in salt), much preferring to languish by the hotel pool. The hotel itself was nice and small – I despise huge homogenous complexes with a passion; they are the ruin of tourist resorts which would otherwise be nice - but still provided me with a nice number of people to look at and espy the reading material of. Indeed, I was delighted by how many books I spotted and recognised. There was one family who seemed collectively to be ploughing through the collected works of Bill Bryson – Down Under, Notes from A Small Country, and Notes from A Big Country were all passed round. John Grisham was popular as ever – I spotted The Street Lawyer and TWO copies of The Partner, not including my own. Someone was reading Peter Robinson’s Caedmon’s Song, then John Sandford’s Naked Prey, then Sleep No More by Greg Iles, then Nobody True by James Herbert. Quite a crime fiction fan, obviously. One man was reading Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses for the whole two weeks; his wife read Martina Cole’s The Know, and then two books in succession by Minette Walters. Kathy Reichs, Dean Koontz, and Robert Harris were also spotted, along with a man who told someone he was reading a book called “Birdman”, which was good so far but he’d only read a few pages. You’re in for a treat, I thought. Birdman is possibly not the kind of book I would suggest people read on holiday. But then…different strokes, different strokes. Shockingly (and I truly was shocked), not a single person seemed to be reading The Da Vinci Code, although two young sisters did both read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. I very much wanted to go up to them and tell them how good it was. But, of course, I didn’t. I was far too afraid of seeming to be “forward” or odd. Besides, I don’t know how to talk to people and strangers intimidate me immeasurably. (Socially inept I am.) I would have loved to have gone up to any of these people and spoke with them about the books they were reading (especially the lady reading Minette Walters), but I’m afraid that’s not something I could do. Instead I just listen and look. I love listening to people – there was one absolutely wonderful woman from somewhere near Manchester who would talk and talk, with a myriad wonderful verbal eccentricities. All I need do was bathe in the flow of words and voice, and then nod occasionally.
 
 Sitting by the pool and listening to people talking to one another while I pretended to read is something I did a lot of. It indicates a degree of vicariousness that is probably quite sinister, actually. It paid off, though: I caught one woman telling another how excellent Ruth Rendell was. She seemed even more enthusiastic than me, I have to say. One of the two aforementioned sisters chipped in to say that their mum liked Ruth Rendell. I thought “Well of course she does – everyone’s mum likes Ruth Rendell”. As far as I am aware, this is true – mothers like Ruth Rendell, always. I have never in my life had a friend whose mother has not liked Ruth Rendell. Honestly. Well, never a friend I’ve spoken to about the books their mother reads, anyway. I do not routinely do this with all friends, lest you were wondering.
 
I think that’s about it in terms of the books people were reading. I don’t know why anyone except me would be interested – I am because I always like to get a general idea for what people are reading. There were of course several people with Catherine Cookson-type books, and a veritable hoard of men who probably don’t ever read anything but had picked out the biography of a licentious sports personality to keep them occupied.
 
That was about it for my holiday: reading in the sun and wandering the island. The flight back was far better than on the way out – although I was far too entrenched in The American Boy, a marvellous book, to notice much. I have one final thing to say about it, though. It’s a thing which still has me shocked, especially considering how such a thing is even possible with post-September 11th air-travel: just over the Alps, after the meals had been taken away, I glanced under the seat in front of me. A little way beneath, something long and orange poked out. I leaned down to pick it up. It was a knife. One of those cheap retractable ones, about 6 inches long and half an inch wide, similar to a scalpel, used for cutting paper, with blades the colour of tarnished lead that are incredibly, incredibly sharp. Just lying there in front of me. On an aeroplane. How such a thing could ever come to be there amazes me. I wasn’t at all sure what to do (I didn’t particularly want to become a news story, after all; in an age where people are seemingly not allowed even toothpicks on flights, I certainly didn’t want to be caught with a knife). I picked it up, but forgot to give it in to the cabin crew. Walking into arrivals, I got a little antsy and dropped it in the pot of a large fake fern. No doubt I should probably have given it to somebody, but I was completely off. The positive is that the event has sewn in my mind an interesting idea for a short story.
 
Anyway, that’s it for now.  I had more to say, but this is far, far too much already. As I say, I read more than I ever have in my life, to the extent that I had to turn to the books I had bought at the airport. I was pleased with almost everything else I read - only David Hewson’s A Season for the Dead disappointed me a little.
 
Anyway, before I go, those links (I don’t know if they’ve appeared anywhere else. They may well have done, but I’ve had to catch up on a LOT, and might easily have missed them):
 
Agatha Christie, according to a survey, is the most popular detective novelist in Britain, says The Guardian. Although that's not exactly news.
 
And in an interview with Bloomberg, Ian McEwan says he plans to finish his next novel, “Saturday”, by September, ready for publication in February or March next year.

Oh, and also more about The Curious Incident...